My Disney Top 5 - Walt Disney World Dark Ridesby Chris Barry, contributing writer
Welcome back to another Disney Top 5.
I’m entering the two-month countdown window until our next Walt Disney World vacation and as you can imagine I’m bursting with anticipation! I certainly don’t want the summer to end. I haven’t been to the beach nearly enough yet. However, there’s a part of me that knows that when this summer does eventually come to a close I’ll be counting the days until we’re sitting on the balcony of our Yacht Club room planning out our first morning in the happiest place on Earth! We always try to start our trips off at the Magic Kingdom so I pretty much know where we’re headed right away on that first day…straight back to Fantasyland. I’ve often said that Fantasyland is the true heart of Walt Disney World—so what better place is there to start?
When I think of some of my all time favorite Disney attractions, a big chunk of them reside in this section of the Magic Kingdom. Don’t get me wrong; I’m definitely one for the thrills. Nothing makes me happier than blasting off into the galaxy on Space Mountain, plummeting down from the top of the Tower of Terror or screaming backwards through Everest. But I think one of the things that set Disney apart from the rest of the pack is their perfection of the classic dark ride. Boarding a ride vehicle and being led through a series of rooms with the intent of transporting you to another time or place is something that Disney really does best. So, with a trip on the horizon I thought I’d take a look at my Top 5 Walt Disney World Dark Rides.
First let’s set some ground rules. Remember, this is my criteria established strictly for the purpose of this column. Some of you may disagree, but I thought I should clarify what I feel is a dark ride and what (for the purpose of this article) are not dark rides. That said, I’m not counting anything that’s on a boat as a dark ride. That leaves out Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, “it’s a small world”, Maelstrom, Gran Fiesta Tour, and Living With the Land. In my eyes, that’s another list altogether. To me, a dark ride consists of a vehicle either on a track or on wheels that takes you through multiple rooms featuring scenery, animatronics, special effects, music, narration, video screens, etc. The now defunct, and in this house very much lamented, Snow White’s Scary Adventures from the Fantasyland of yesteryear is a good representation of the classic Disney dark ride.
I’ve seen Space Mountain labeled as a dark ride. Not on this list. It’s an indoor roller coaster no matter how you slice it. Test Track is sometimes listed as a dark ride and I can see why, but the climatic race around the track in the outdoors reclassifies this fantastic ride as something else. Dinosaur at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is sort of a dark ride on steroids, but still, I definitely kept it in contention for this countdown. Figment is a dark ride. The Great Movie Ride is a dark ride. Ellen’s Energy Adventure, although one segment of it sort of fits, is not. Hopefully you get what I’m trying to say and will accept my terms so, that being the case, let’s get on with the list.
5 – Dinosaur - Disney's Animal Kingdom
How could one of the most thrilling rides at Walt Disney World be last on my countdown you may ask? True, Dinosaur is a pretty awesome attraction with a truly unique ride vehicle and incredibly realistic looking animatronic dinosaurs. It’s also just…pretty darn chaotic. While I always find it a total blast, I feel the thrills overtake the whole notion of the ride “transporting” you elsewhere. (Ironic considering the ride purportedly “transports” you to another time.) I’m so busy being jostled and jolted that I don’t really feel like I’m someplace else. It is darn good fun though and that’s how it earned it’s place at number five.
4 – The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh - Magic Kingdom
This is almost always the first ride we go on when we land in the Magic Kingdom. It’s the first attraction that all three of my kids first experienced on their very first trip to Walt Disney World and thus occupies a special place in our collective Disney memories. I still never tire of visiting Pooh and friends. Actually, I wish the whole visit to the Hundred Acre Wood lasted longer. The addition of the interactive queue definitely enhanced the whole experience quite a bit, especially Eeyore’s little stick house, the gophers, and the wall of honey. My favorite room of all is the “rain room.” If you grew up with Pooh or read the books and watched the movies with your children, this is most certainly the place to be, perhaps the happiest dark ride on earth!
3 – Spaceship Earth - Epcot
The dramatic symbol of Epcot also contains one of the all time coolest and most unique dark rides. Spaceship Earth is chock full of details around every bend. It’s also an amazing use of the geodesic sphere’s interior and always impresses me no matter how many times I’ve been though it. How did they get that Chevy Vega up there anyway? Spaceship Earth is a true Disney original and should never be missed. We ride it several times on each trip.
2 – Haunted Mansion - Magic Kingdom
In many ways this is the ultimate Disney dark ride. The Haunted Mansion’s got it all. There are lots of rooms. The ride vehicle is very cool. It’s full of fantastic special effects. You’re surrounded by classic animatronic figures and lots of them. The song stays with you forever. It’s nice and long and the details are everywhere you look. I still find new things to look at, especially in the cemetery. In my opinion, it’s the gold standard. Every dark ride should be measured up against this one.
1 – Peter Pan’s Flight - Magic Kingdom
So if Haunted Mansion is the gold standard, why is Peter Pan my number one dark ride? Simply stated, Peter Pan’s Flight perfectly fulfills exactly what I like to believe were Walt Disney’s intentions when he started creating these rides for Disneyland. As soon as I get near the queue and hear the music, I begin to transform into a little kid again. It makes me feel young. It makes me believe that a pirate ship can fly over London, that there really are places like Neverland and that good can triumph over evil in the end. It accomplishes all of this in a mere matter of moments with simplicity and integrity. There’s nothing fancy here but it doesn’t need to be fancy. It just tells its timeless story. It’s classic. It’s beautifully done and it hits all the right marks for me each and every time I board that ship. And that’s why it heads up my list. Peter Pan’s Flight never fails to make me feel like I’ve escaped the real world for just a little bit. I can only theorize that these were Walt’s intentions, but I’d be willing to bet I’m pretty close to the mark on this one.
Walt Disney didn’t invent the dark ride. There were dark rides at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the great granddaddy of World’s Fairs the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. Call me biased, but I think Walt and his Imagineers obviously took the whole concept to another level and perfected it. Even today, in this world of “everything has to be interactive” attractions, the Imagineering crew can still turn out a classic dark ride better than anyone else. Under the Sea-Journey of the Little Mermaid is a prime example and it was tough to keep off this list. From what I hear the recent additions to the California Adventure version have improved this dark ride even more.
At the heart, it’s still a very simple concept; let’s take you on a ride through a living story using music, animatronics, special effects and, of course, a certain amount of magic. Let’s shut out the rest of the world and go on a journey to another time or place, real or imaginary. That’s what people do on Disney dark rides every day all over the world.
These are my favorites. What are yours? As always, click on the link below; let me hear your thoughts and I’ll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.